Merry Cast Makes Family Stone

The movie business (or what’s left of it) is always manic-depressive, but when there’s a war, it’s even worse. During every U.S. killing spree, there’s no middle ground. Movies fall into two categories: a few crumbs for mature audiences that are serious and thoughtful and doomed at the box office, or piles of giddy and foolish junk for idiots and children. In addition, Christmas movies are as numbing and phony as Christmas songs and Hallmark cards.

All of which provides a perfect intro for this holiday season’s most rapturous surprise—a merry, lovable sugarplum of intelligence and happiness that will make you feel warm as a mulled brandy on Christmas Eve. The movie that has me wrapped around myself with such unexpected gratitude is The Family Stone. If you find it, it might be an act of pure serendipity, because mixed reviews are inevitable: sour cynics and half-baked critics will probably dismiss it the way they do any movie that touches the heartstrings and makes you feel something. You will also very likely be turned off by the lousy, moronic trailers, which do more harm to all movies than critics and piracy combined, and should be undisputedly and unequivocally outlawed in general.

My advice is ignore any hint of a questionable reservation, give The Family Stone your unfettered attention, and put it at the top of your holiday-season priorities like the angel on top of your tree. Like those other annual Yuletide classics, It’s a Wonderful Life and Christmas in Connecticut, it will make you feel wonderful.

Skillfully directed and sensitively written by the enormously gifted Thomas Bezucha, with an all-star cast to make your mouth water, this movie is like the partridge in the pear tree. Nobody suspected it would transcend a familiar genre (the dysfunctional American family on a forced holiday) and come to life with so much magic and charm.

In a walnut shell, it’s about 11 flawed, human, fascinating and extremely worthwhile people trying to get through three days of another ghastly, fun-filled, old-fashioned New England Christmas weekend without killing each other. In the first scene, it’s the Friday before Christmas, and Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton) stands by the window of her white, two-story colonial house, staring silently at her beautiful Christmas tree, the tears in her eyes reflected in the candlelight. It takes a long time in the course of the movie before we know why her heart is full and why the tinsel and glow of this year’s family reunion mean something special.

Meanwhile, her reverie is interrupted by doorbells, car horns and laughter as the five attractive, eccentric and diverse children of the Family Stone arrive with their significant others. Three sons: Everett (Dermot Mulroney, looking like Cary Grant) is the handsome, successful New York executive-slash-prodigal-son; Ben (Luke Wilson) is the polar opposite—a scruffy, amiable documentary filmmaker and bohemian slob who flies in from California like an unmade bed and marches to his own drummer; and sweet, affectionate baby brother Thad (Ty Giordano), who is both gay and deaf, with his partner Patrick (Brian White), who is black. There are two daughters: Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), the older, married one, with a precocious little girl of her own and another baby on the way, and whose husband isn’t arriving until Christmas Day; and Amy (Rachel McAdams), the younger, bitchy one with too much education and an opinion about everything.

Sybil and Kelly, the mom and dad of this chaotic clan (Ms. Keaton and Craig T. Nelson), think this is all just about perfect, except for one thing: Everett has brought along his neurotic girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker, in the juiciest role of her movie career), and the family hates her on sight.

Meredith is a nervous, bossy, controlling, uptight career girl who wears designer labels and stiletto-heeled Jimmy Choos and has an annoying way of clearing her throat—an intruder who fits into this tight, protective and exclusive little baggy-sweater club like a caterpillar in the plum pudding. Meredith is so humiliated by the Stones, and is made to feel so distressed and out of place by their hostility and disapproval, that she sends out a frantic S.O.S. for her sister Julie (Claire Danes), who sacrifices her own Christmas plans for a rescue mission and takes to the Stones like postmodern Dickens characters crossed with John Irving and Joan Didion. As they all settle down for a Christmas Eve from Hell, they seem like the creations of an over-adrenalized screenwriter, until you get to know them and they grow on you. Then you realize they’re just as real and eccentric as your own relatives, but maybe more appealing, and doubly welcome.

This is especially true of Sybil, whose brittle, thorny sarcasm masks the fact that she is seriously ill. Christmas Eve dinner is so disastrous that Meredith, the only person in the house who doesn’t know sign language, has outraged the entire family by asking Thad if he thinks being gay will affect the child he’s planning to adopt, then insults Patrick in a game of family charades by pointing to him as a clue in the title The Bride Wore Black. When Meredith lets her hair down, you can hear the crash in New Jersey. Before they get around to the turkey, the chic, anally retentive Meredith has smashed up the car trying to make a hasty getaway, spent a drunken night with Ben in the local pub and ended up in the wrong bed; Everett has fallen for Julie, who arrived to lend moral support and stayed to find love; and nothing ends the way you think it will.

In an epilogue, it’s one year later and the Family Stone is gathering for another reunion. Old doors have closed, new doors have opened, and not everyone is with the same partner from the year before. But despite the additions and losses, the Family Stone carries on, warts and all, like life.

There are many things to applaud here. Thomas Bezucha’s original and brilliantly conceived script weaves a series of unaccountable twists into a tender and hopeful point of view, boldly suggesting that in the midst of disorder, everything happens for a reason. In an insightful film that is moving and smart and often laugh-out-loud hilarious, the wit is derived not from dumb punch lines, obnoxious jokes or people making fools of themselves. The comedy works its way into your heart in intimate ways that are both humorous and poignant.

I found the conflicting layers of so many internecine relationships among the siblings—togetherness, disparity, strength and rivalry—deeply affecting, and their reactions to each other, and to life in general, persistently truthful and realistic. The acting is so full of grace, observance and human nuance that you could call it a dream cast without exaggeration. They all seem to belong in that house, which does not feel or look like a set but a real home with a real mailbox, where generations grow and change and return for more.

Diane Keaton is the Elmer’s Glue that binds them together. Brisk and blunt and utterly without pretense, the role of Sybil fits her quirks like a cashmere glove, but doesn’t always appear likeable. When she goes back on her word to give Everett her mother’s wedding ring, a family heirloom, he says: “You promised.” She says, “Tough shit.” You laugh. It takes awhile to realize she doesn’t want him to make a mistake she might not always be around to fix.

You get the heartbreaking truth on Christmas Eve, when the house is finally quiet. A few people in their pajamas are downstairs in the family room watching Meet Me in St. Louis, a Family Stone holiday tradition, but upstairs in the master bedroom, Sybil shows her loyal, loving husband of so many years her mastectomy scar in a moment of piercing intimacy while Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” You shed a tear. Diane Keaton is so honest and fresh in every movement, every expression and every line reading that I do not believe she could ever do anything remotely bogus or half-assed. With a new maturity in her face, and as the salty but fragile matriarch of this unconventional family, she gives it all she’s got—offering penultimate proof that she’s one of the screen’s most enchanting 21st-century icons.

When Sarah Jessica Parker finally explodes in tears and gets down to the true grit of her emotions, blurting out “What’s so great about you guys anyway?”, Ms. Keaton floods the screen with cut-to-the-chase directness. “Nothing,” she says. “But we’re all we’ve got.” There you have it: the essence of what The Family Stone is all about, and why it is one of the best films of 2005. Don’t let this one slip by. There is so much going on in every scene that you cannot assimilate it all in one viewing. I love it dearly. I have seen it twice. I will see it again. If there is any hope for the longevity of movies, it will become an annual holiday classic.

Monkey Business

The silly, pointless and obscenely overproduced remake of King Kong is Peter Jackson’s follow-up to all those Lord of the Rings fantasies. At a cost of more than $200 million, it could sponsor a cure for cancer. That’s a lot of monkey business. Instead, all it musters is a lot of heavy-as-concrete inside jokes about Universal, the studio writing the checks, and Merian C. Cooper, the adventurous director of the 1933 original. Amidst Depression breadlines and vaudeville acts, the gruesome Jack Black plays the greedy, no-talent filmmaker with a movie about buried treasure, but no star and no prospects. (Mae West is too fat to fit into the costumes, and Myrna Loy is busy.)

Perpetually overexposed Australian Ben & Jerry’s flavor-of-the-month Naomi Watts, the road company Nicole Kidman, plays the starving actress with nothing to lose who boards a tramp steamer for exotic-island location shooting and ends up in a big gorilla paw so hairy you wonder where it’s been. Adrien Brody is the writer who falls for her and Jamie Bell is the cabin boy. Everything leading up to the arrival on Skull Island is deadly. Then the movie turns into a Jurassic Park ride, replete with a dinosaur stampede and savage headhunters who offer the star to the prehistoric Kong, a big softie with an eye for sexy blondes and bamboo trees for toothpicks. Computerized animatronics add dramatic dimension to the difference in proportion between the monsters and their human prey. (In the film’s scariest sequence, Kong battles three roaring T. Rexes simultaneously with one hand, clutching Ms. Watts in the other.)

The final 45 minutes peter out laboriously when Kong hits Broadway, billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Poor Kong, captured and chained with his spirit and strength depleted and his freedom gone, is a cross between an F.A.O. Schwarz toy and Bedtime for Bonzo Goes Ballistic. With all the money for computerized puppets and digital imaging, the movie displays little skill and few thrills. Kong is mostly played for laughs. He’s more interested in girls than bananas, and in this version, the girl seems to dig him as much as he digs her. Things pick up briefly when the big lovesick ape breaks loose and destroys Times Square and everything in it.

Following him to the top of the Empire State Building in the dead of winter wearing a flimsy white crêpe de Chine Marilyn Monroe dress and high heels, Ms. Watts doesn’t just scream. She throws back her tresses, opens her mouth so wide you can see her tonsils, and gives out an ear-splattering shriek that opens up your sinuses. So boring and bad it will undoubtedly make millions, King Kong left me with only one question: Where is Fay Wray now that we need her most?